June 15, 2020

Enter the era of the digital nomad

Estonia has recently become the first country in the world to create a digital nomad visa — and others would be wise to follow suit.

Karoli Hindriks

5 min read

In 2015, Pieter Levels predicted there would be one billion digital nomads in the world by 2035. As much as I wanted to believe the Dutch founder’s bold prediction at the time, I couldn’t. It was obvious that the world of work was changing, but the numbers weren’t quite there yet. Now, amid a global pandemic, the maths is starting to look right. Millions of people have discovered overnight that they can work remotely, and so have their bosses. 

Once borders reopen across the globe, I believe we will start seeing people’s dreams of working remotely from anywhere turned into reality in massive numbers. And the countries that manage to attract these highly-skilled modern workers will see the positive economic impact of their knowledge and spending power. Smarter countries could even let digital nomads pay tax in exchange for local healthcare and other social benefits. It’s a clear win-win.

There’s just one problem with this: while people and companies may be ready for the new era of work and travel, policy isn't. 


Digital outlaws

There’s no legitimate way to work as a digital nomad. The most common way to work legally in a country is to have a local employer. Then there’s always the even more tragicomically outdated option of marrying a local, but getting married in a new country every few months is both unsustainable and kind of difficult to work into your Tinder profile. 

In a nutshell, the law doesn’t recognise digital nomads as a distinct and legitimate segment of the global workforce. This is why they have mostly been working and travelling on tourist visas — which is technically not allowed. 

While a self-employed solopreneur might take the risk of working on a tourist visa and hoping they don’t get caught, companies whose employees work elsewhere as digital nomads are in a bind. At my company, Jobbatical, we recently had a concerned client whose non-EU employee was planning to travel to Spain for a holiday and then stay there with his family while working remotely for a few months. HR was trying to find a legal way for the company to allow this, but the reality is that today there isn't one. The employee can only pretend to continue being on holiday while actually working. Why is the only workable option one that puts both the company and the employee at risk? 

Enter the Digital Nomad Visa

The frustrating absurdity of countless situations like this one is what kicked off a journey towards what is, as far as I am aware, the first Digital Nomad Visa in the world. The first meeting between representatives of the Estonian government and the global digital nomad community happened in our office two years ago. Along with community leaders, we made the case for a new type of visa. We surveyed over a thousand current and aspiring digital nomads to get their input on what their visa could and should look like. Instead of state officials whipping up a bill about something they have no experience with, the Estonian Digital Nomad Visa Bill was actually drafted in close collaboration with the global digital nomad community. 

👉 Read: Where are Europe's top digital nomad villages?

Approved by the Estonian parliament on June 3, this visa will allow location-independent knowledge workers to live in Estonia for up to a year while working for employers or clients outside of the country, ushering in a new era of work — one where knowledge workers aren’t tied to one desk or even one continent. 

Some countries, like Portugal with its self-employment visa or Thailand with its smart visa, have taken their first steps in a similar direction. But not all digital nomads are self-employed, nor do all science and technology experts earn €5,600 a month, as required by the Thai smart visa scheme. There’s still a gap between policy and the reality of the workforce. Which is why that Estonian parliament vote was historic: it explicitly recognised a new type of modern worker. 

But why is that such a big deal?

Nab those nomads

When we surveyed those 1,200 digital nomads two years ago, 87% of them said a simpler visa process would affect their choice of destination. This is where anyone interested in bringing skilled talent into their country should definitely be paying close attention. The highly-skilled mobile workforce is ready to leap at the opportunity to settle in your country for a while — and boost the economy with their combined spending power and skill sets. The first countries to give them a way in will reap the benefits. 

MBO Partners research found that there were 7.3m digital nomads in the United States in 2019. And that was before a global lockdown showed millions of people they can work remotely. Those millions, mostly highly-skilled folks, get to choose where they eat, sleep, travel — where they spend their money and share their skills. And as our survey showed, nine out of 10 of them might choose your country if you fix your visa policy for them. Imagine that flow of capital you’re missing out on. Or all the world-changing ideas that aren’t born because your outdated immigration policy is keeping those exceptional brains away from your local ecosystem. 

Because there is no precedent for this, the eventual scope and impact of such a visa is difficult to predict with great accuracy. But Estonia, a country of 1.3m people, projects that a possible 1,800 digital nomads will apply for the new visa annually. Combined, these nomads will contribute tens of millions of euros to the country’s economy. Beyond that, the impact will be felt strongly on the local tech and startup scene, where the nomads’ knowledge sharing and idea generation is expected to have a significant positive effect that will compound over time. 

What if this simple modernising tweak to immigration policy is the missing link between where your country is now and where it could be?